EDF Health

EPA distorts the scientific evidence and fails to protect kids’ brains in its proposed limit for perchlorate in drinking water

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 56 parts per billion (ppb) for perchlorate in drinking water – more than three times less protective than an interim health advisory level set in 2008. To justify this increase, EPA turned its back on scientific evidence showing that this potent neurotoxin undermines childrens’ motor development and control and can increase their anxiety and depression. The agency’s reasoning is inconsistent with its own analysis published in a draft report in late 2017 and the findings of a peer review panel it convened last year to review that report.

If the agency had used the most protective scientific study and the most sensitive endpoint evaluated in the proposed rule, the MCL would likely be 4 ppb – more than three times more protective than the current health advisory. As a result, the agency fails to adequately protect children from a lifetime of harm. With this MCL, EPA is allowing pregnant women to be exposed to perchlorate in the first trimester of pregnancy at levels that pose much greater risk of impaired neurodevelopment in their children.

The proposed MCL – and how the agency reached it – was both a disappointment and a surprise to us. In late 2017, we applauded the agency’s scientists for developing an innovative model connecting a mother’s perchlorate exposure in the first trimester to fetal harm. We were not alone – in early 2018, EPA’s peer review panel congratulated the agency’s scientists on their analysis. We also complimented EPA’s population-based approach to developing an MCL by estimating the percent of pregnant women, and their children, with borderline thyroid dysfunction due to low iodine intake.

So how did EPA abruptly change course and estimate an MCL less protective than the current health advisory? By altering its analysis in three subtle but significant ways:

  1. Rejecting five epidemiology studies showing harm at even lower exposure levels in favor of one IQ study by Korevaar et al. in 2016.
  2. Choosing an MCL that allows an IQ loss of 2 points even though the study showed a 1 point loss was statistically significant.
  3. Dismissing an alternative, population-based method that EPA proposed in 2017 that reinforces the need for a more protective standard.

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EPA’s safety standard for perchlorate in water should prioritize kids’ health

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will soon propose a drinking water standard for perchlorate. The decision – due by the end of May per a consent decree with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)— will end a nearly decade-long process to regulate the chemical that has been shown to harm children’s brain development.

In making its decision, EPA must propose a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) “at the level at which no known or anticipated adverse effects on the health of persons occur and which allows an adequate margin of safety.”[1] It must also set a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) as close to the MCLG as feasible using the best available treatment technology and taking cost into consideration.

To guide that decision, EPA’s scientists developed a sophisticated model that considers the impact of perchlorate on the development of the fetal brain in the first trimester when the fetus is particularly vulnerable to the chemical’s disruption of the proper function of the maternal thyroid gland. As discussed more below, the model was embraced by an expert panel of independent scientists through a transparent, public process that included public comments and public meetings.

In April, a consulting firm published a study critiquing EPA’s model. The authors acknowledged the model as a valuable research tool but did not think it is sufficient to use in regulatory decision-making due to uncertainties. Therefore, the authors concluded that EPA should discard the peer-reviewed model and rely on a 14-year old calculation of a “safe dose” that does not consider the latest scientific evidence and has even greater uncertainties. They didn’t offer other options such as using uncertainty factors to address their concerns about the model’s estimated values.

Given the importance of the issue and the risk to children’s brain development, we want to explain EPA’s model, the process the agency used to develop it, and the study raising doubt about the model.

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EDF analysis: Lead service lines in Illinois communities

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Building statewide, comprehensive inventories of lead service lines (LSLs) in community water systems (CWSs) is a critical part of any effort to eliminate lead pipes. With a solid inventory, states can conduct a credible needs assessment and engage the public in supporting community efforts to replace LSLs.

In January 2017, the Illinois legislature passed a law designed to reduce children’s exposure to lead in drinking water. It included a requirement that CWSs submit annual reports to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) regarding a “water distribution system material inventory” by April of each year. EDF sees Illinois’s approach to developing an inventory as a model to be considered by other states because it:

  • Requires all CWS to report (unlike Indiana which had a well-designed one-time voluntary survey but only a 57% response);
  • Covers the entire service line (unlike California which ignored the portion of the service line on private property); and
  • Requires annual updates to track progress, especially in reducing the number of service lines with unknown materials (unlike Michigan which requires updates only every five-years).

In August 2018, IEPA released a summary of the first year submissions and has updated it several times. IEPA indicated that 95% of CWSs submitted reports and provided totals of each type of piping material reported with 414,895 LSLs and 1,504,748 of unknown material. At the time, the agency did not provide information on what each CWS reported.

Making totals public is important but does little to engage the public in understanding what the information means for their community. But earlier this week, IEPA published an online tool, which allows residents to search for their water system and download the data for individual reports of the types of materials currently reported by their water system.  EDF also received the information pursuant to a Freedom of Information request. Click here to see the data for all the CWSs in a spreadsheet. We also used an EPA database to identify the 84 CWSs that did not comply with the law.

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New study: Homebuyers and renters take action when told they may have a lead service line

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director, and Lindsay McCormick, Project Manager

The Cornell/EDF study confirmed that potential buyers or renters report being much more willing to take action to replace LSLs when told they have one regardless of disclosure style. However, water testing information that shows levels below EPA’s lead action level may underestimate risk and undermine action on LSLs.

Today, EDF and collaborators at Cornell published a new study that provides insight into how disclosure policies can impact potential home-buyer and renter behavior. This effort builds on a report EDF published in 2017 grading state housing disclosure policies according to their ability to help homebuyers make informed decisions about lead service lines (LSLs) before they sign a sales contract. LSLs are pipes that connect homes to the water mains under the street and are a major source of lead in drinking water. Four states — Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania — and Washington, DC scored an A-. Twenty-one states scored a D or F. The remaining 25 states scored a B or C.

Our analysis was based on a presumption that if potential homeowners are told that a home has an LSL, many would negotiate with the property owner for its removal, whether by having the seller replace it or building the cost into the mortgage to fund the buyer’s replacement. This was a reasonable presumption that underlies why sellers are required to disclose property defects and environmental hazards in many states.

However, we were interested in testing that presumption and exploring how potential homebuyers and renters might respond differently based on how the information is disclosed by a property owner or home inspector. Our objective was to evaluate disclosure styles to assess if the different styles influenced respondents’ perceived risk of the LSL in a home and willingness to act. To conduct the survey, we partnered with Jeff Niederdeppe and Hang Lu of Cornell University’s Department of Communications who recruited 2,205 participants online and gave them one of three scenarios to consider and advised them it would cost $1,000-5,000 to replace the LSL. See Figure 1 below.

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$10 in benefits for every $1 invested – Minnesota estimates benefits of lead service line replacement

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) released a report estimating that investing $4 billion in virtually eliminating lead in drinking water over 20 years would provide societal benefits of more than $8 billion. The state agency only counted the societal benefits from avoiding the loss of IQ points due to children’s exposure to lead.

Replacing lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes that connect a building’s plumbing to the water main under the street – yielded the greatest benefit with an investment of $0.228 to $0.365 billion yielding $2.118 to $4.235 billion in benefits. Replacing lead fixtures and solder had a lower, but still significant, return on the investment.

Based on this analysis, MDH recommended as high priority that the state conduct an inventory of LSLs and that LSLs be removed “at a measured pace” of 20 years. It also recommended undertaking as a medium priority an awareness campaign focused on the danger of lead in drinking water to formula-fed infants younger than nine months old and as a low priority a general public information campaign to prompt homeowners and renters to take action if they have an LSL.

The agency, which includes both the state’s drinking water protection program and its lead poisoning prevention program, prepared the report in response to a provision in a state appropriations law passed in 2017. The report is important because it is the first state assessment we know of, and it reports an impressive return on the investment of more than $10 for every $1 invested in LSL replacement. For these reasons, we took a close look at the analysis and the underlying assumptions.

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The elephant in the room: potential biopersistence of short-chain PFAS

Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant and Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director

In January 2018, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists published a peer-reviewed journal article stating a commonly used raw material to make greaseproof paper is likely to persist in the human body. FDA scientists’ sophisticated analysis and remarkable conclusion raises questions about the broad assumption that short-chain perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), as a class, did not accumulate.

Strangely, two recent reviews funded by the FluoroCouncil, ignored FDA scientists’ study even though it was published ten months before the industry group submitted their analysis for peer-review. The peer reviewers appear to have missed the omission as well. As a result, the industry evaluations continue to perpetuate the flawed assumptions, concluding that perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA) and related short-chain PFAS “present negligible human health risk” and that this substance alone is a suitable marker for the “safety of fluorotelomer replacement chemistry.”

In this blog, we discuss the differences between the studies and the implications of the discordance between FDA’s and industry’s conclusions for the safety assessment of short-chain PFAS.

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